--2 Mother Tongue: Viva Los Muertos
Sept. 22, 2017
child dia de los muertos
Theo is ready for el dia del los muertos.

Mother Tongue: Viva Los Muertos

How do we pass down the memory of loved ones?

November 13, 2013, 1:30 pm
By Lauren Whitehurst

From the Department of Better Late than Never: We finally went to Albuquerque’s South Valley Día de Los Muertos y Marigold Parade. We missed the beginning of the parade because it look so long to paint all of our faces—nine across three generations—in the event’s elaborate calavera style.

As we searched for a parking place, Theo nearly dissolved. “We’re going to miss the parade!” he wailed.

“We’ll make it! Don’t cry! You’ll ruin your face paint!” I said, discovering a new counter to my kids’ histrionics.

Elaborate face painting designs rule during the Day of the Dead parade. The holiday itself, a Mexican celebration during which people honor friends and family members who have died, is full of play and color. Animated calacas, or skeletons, dance and die and cavort on the shelves of countless New Mexico gift shops, and homes.

Among the popular calavera face designs are bright flowers and spider webs. Painted across white-based chins, cheeks and foreheads, they evince delight and the macabre. Life and death. Oh yeah, and decay, celebration, wildness, connection and stories.

The whole family ready for the Día de los Muertos parade.

I rediscovered Sherman Alexie’s poem “The Summer of the Black Widows” a couple days after the Muertos parade. The lines placing stories in the bellies of spiders particularly struck me after spending an afternoon among faces painted with spider webs.

The elders knew the spiders
carried stories in the their stomachs.

- Sherman Alexie, “The Summer of the Black Widows”

Alexie’s spiders are black widows, shiny bits of dangerous elegance that haunt household nooks and nightmares. I am not sure why spiders and webs are prominent in Day of the Dead decorations, or whether they extend to the holiday’s indigenous roots. But, as reminders of beauty, mortality and woven personal narratives, they’re a good fit for my understanding of the Day of the Dead.

Quite often, I watch my children or laugh at something one of them says, and I think of my grandmothers, of how funny they’d find their great-grandkids and how I wish they could know each other. I have dear friends who sharply wish for this with their mothers, no longer living. Recently, the father of old friends passed away, survived by his wife, kids and small grandchildren.

How do we pass these people down? What stories convey them, what images, what anecdotes? As a metaphor, spiders help me visualize their stories—hiding in the crevices of lives lived, living and to come; infecting our ways of understanding; and maintaining our webs of love, loss and tradition. I’m learning I don’t pay them enough attention.

That spider web on the chin and florid flower on the forehead invite me to address my webs of family and friendships—the sensual, overwhelming, disturbing and funny lines that connect us. The antics of the calacas make the dead approachable, priming us for celebrating the lives they lived. In death, darkness, and unearthing, we can reconnect with people we loved, who loved us, and who inform our lives without ever having known us or our children.

We talk of death in terms of loss, and, it is loss in its most painful extreme. What I love about Día de los Muertos is its turn on the concept of losing. There is “she passed away,” there is “we lost him,” and then there is this ritualized opportunity to welcome dead loved ones back into our lives—openly, joyfully, with a respect that doesn’t pit mourning against merriness.

My Gran loved a good party, sweets and battery-operated singing Christmas characters. So it’s fun for me to wear something of hers as a costume, or make boiled custard and sit down to drink it with my kids while telling them about her. If they made battery-operated singing calacas or sugar skulls, I would gleefuly add them to our Dia de los Muertos ofrenda.


The ofrenda is an altar featuring pictures of loved ones who’ve died, flowers, sugar skulls, skeletons, candles, favorite objects, sometimes food. It physically centralizes remembrance in a day-to-day space. Altars can be spooky, weird, spectacular, heartbreaking and wonderful. We made one for the first time this year, and I hope to add to it next year, bringing into our home the spirits of those buried far away.

This seems so healthy! I find a deep, wild, psychic and spiritual health in the Dia de los Muertos tradition, and I love that it’s a big deal in New Mexico. It is the health of attending to mortality, decay, and death as part of life. It venerates a sweet tooth and revels in color. It’s both reverent and irreverent.

I started our ofrenda with sugar skills and paper nichos (boxes) Theo and Sylvia decorated at the Museum of International Folk Art’s craft day. Sylvia’s skull is icing-swiped, hints of the frosting mountain that existed before she ate it. Theo’s is carefully detailed with sequins and frosting glue.

I’d intended to make this event before, telling friends I’d meet them there. I did, just several years later. Intention can take a long time to manifest when you’re a parent.

Fortunately, Dia de los Muertos isn’t harsh about timing—since costumed spectators outnumber painted paraders, the parade lasts longer; tardiness is irrelevant in remembering loved ones and their stories. I’ve rehung the photographs from our ofrenda, wrapped the sugar skulls, and packed up the pipe-cleaner spiders we made. They’ll return next year, their bellies full of stories.


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